The Best Time to Hunt Deer

best time to hunt deer by Paul Ranft - 3 boone & crockett bucks in 3 years

Besides the proverbial answer, “any time you can get into the woods”, there are many factors at play in determining the best time to hunt deer. I’ve hunted whitetail deer for over 30 years, spending the past dozen or so as a professional deer hunting guide, so let’s walk through this in terms of the major factors; time of season, time of day, weather, moon phase, and more.

Which Season is the Best Time to Hunt Deer?

Early Season

Early season can be extremely productive, if you’ve do your homework! Scouting is the key! Spending time in your hunting area glassing from afar is what you need to be doing pre-season. Ideally you’ve also thoroughly scouted your areas in winter and spring. The benefits of glassing for your next buck are:

  • You can watch the deer in real-time so you know exactly what trails they’re using and when.
  • Inventory: Glassing gives you the opportunity to lay eyes on your quarry. Trail cameras can sometimes not truly tell you the size and age of a buck as well as seeing him with your own eyes.
  • Minimize Pressure: Glassing from a distance keeps your presence to a minimum. Trail cameras are helpful, but most require you to physically walk into your hunting area, which alerts the deer of your presence. So, sit back and glass from a distance in the early season! Keep in mind that the more you visit your hunting area the more the deer will pattern you. So be careful not to overdo it. Once you find out the information you need, get out! Start using cameras as you hunt your area.

Human pressure on deer is low in the early season and whitetails are still in somewhat of a summer pattern, traveling from bedding to food sources. Weather is usually pretty warm still, and deer need to drink every day. Water is probably the most underestimated piece of the puzzle! Finding a small water source can be extremely crucial in early season success. That water source, if small and isolated, can really narrow down a buck’s travel options, giving you a window of opportunity. Our video, Hill Country Bucks, has a great segment where Jarrod explains how he was able to shoot a beautiful early season Wisconsin buck by capitalizing on a small water source.

Early to Mid October (October Lull?)

Early to mid October can be a very difficult time to hunt deer, most deer have gone into a night time mode of movement, especially in high pressure areas. It’s not necessarily due to human pressure either. It’s just what deer do. It can be from food source changes (farmers harvesting crops), water drying up, bugs, and hormonal changes. Mature bucks are preparing for the rut. Their testosterone levels are kicking in more and more. They isolate themselves from their summer bachelor groups. This time of year we spend a lot of time checking trail cams on my outfitting business, I don’t have clients this time of year so getting pics of deer are all I’m looking for to inventory what’s on our farm. If you’re hunting early to mid October for a mature buck, the key is probably going to be evening hunts near his bedding area. Watch the moon phase close for small windows of opportunities on morning hunts near bedding areas too, like Andrae D’Acquisto’s 190 class buck he explains his tactics for in Hill Country Bucks. More on moon phase later.

Pre-Rut

best time to deer hunt - Paul Ranft boone & crockett buck

The author killed this massive buck by knowing the best time to make his move.

The whitetail pre rut (pre-rut) is probably one my favorite times to hunt! There’s just something about the leaves starting to change, cool mornings, and great sunrises. Bucks this time of season are getting more and more ready for the rut. They start to make rubs. Mock scrapelines and calling works this time of year, but the window is small. Adult bucks continue to separate themselves from other deer. They are responsible for a ton of rubs in your area and they come back to visit them often! Hunting a distinct rub line this time of year can be the best time to hunt deer. You can’t rule out a good scrape line. Bucks are putting down paw marks and leaving their calling card in them. This just tells all others in his area that this area is his! Finding big scrapes are better yet. Sometimes these are the product of several bucks. At my outfitting business, I always put a camera on a big scrape. It will show lots of other bucks visiting it and how long they stay in that particular area. Rattling, snort wheezing and using a grunt call can be great tools this time of year too, but be careful not to over use them! You must factor in how many other hunters are hunting your area and how often they might be using these same tactics. On over-hunted chunks of public land (state land), calling is often overdone. In Iowa, where I outfit, there is little to no hunting pressure, so calling works great! Last year’s buck I harvested I snort wheezed him from about 100 yards away! Bucks this time of year are challenging each other, so fighting takes place daily. Rattling works very well.

Rut

Most hunters seem to think that the rut is the best time to hunt deer. In my opinion, it can be the hardest time to hunt. Every buck is on his feet hunting does. So seeing a bunch of bucks is the norm, but getting one to stop to get a shot or to call him to you can be challenging. They will fight this time of year but not too often so rattling usually doesn’t work that great. They abandon most of the sign they put down during pre-rut but I have known them to still do a ton of rubs when they’re not chasing. The key to being successful during rut hunting is to hunt heavily used trails close to bedding areas. All the bucks in your area will scent check all bedding areas or they will simply just walk in and look for bedded does. Strategically-placed foods plots are hugely successful this time of year, in fact they are nick-named killing plots. Here’s why; just like I mentioned, every buck has visited and grown up feeding in the food plot, so when it comes to rut, he knows to come visit a food plot because of all the does that feed there. The food plot can’t be put just anywhere. In Iowa, we place them in the woods away from natural food sources. They don’t have to be big, but well done… but that’s a whole other topic. Check out Skip Sligh’s article about Deer Food Plots. Over the years, you’ll find some food plots work great and others don’t. Keep the ones that work, and stop planting the ones that don’t.

Post Rut

Post rut hunting is the most challenging of all the seasons. Weather is cold, deer have been hunted hard, and the rut is about over. In Iowa, where my clients and I hunt, the weather is extremely cold and windy, so being prepared for the weather will give you more time in the tree. Deer movements kind of go back to moving at night or mid-day so being able to sit for long periods of time are crucial. The adult bucks are still looking for that last doe while most of the younger ones are looking for their next meal. Trophy hunting can be very productive. Calling can work but it’s usually not that productive unless you use a snort wheeze. I have found this to work great this time of year. The biggest secret to hunting post rut is just sitting for long periods of time. Some of the TV stars out there hunt all day every day. Most of us can’t do that, but try to spend as much time as possible out hunting.

What Weather Makes for the Best Time to Hunt Deer?

Weather Fronts

Weather has a tremendous effect on deer activity. More specifically, changes in weather! When a cold front moves in, deer feeding patterns often get disrupted because they might lay low (hunker down) to wait out heavy winds, rain, or snow. Once the weather stabilizes after the front settles, deer movement can pick up like crazy! Simply put, getting out right after bad weather can be the best time to hunt deer! Action can also be very good right before a big storm hits because deer know they’re about to be holed up for a while. Here’s a great post and video from Jeff Sturgis for more information about hunting cold fronts. Regardless of the season, you’re looking for big temperature swings.

Wind

The effect of wind on deer movement varies by region. In the Great Plains, the wind seems to always blow, so deer are used to it and it’s just part of life. In other areas, high winds tend to shut down deer movement so it’s not the best time to hunt deer. I’ve also found that on days when there’s almost zero wind, deer don’t seem to move as much. The best time to hunt deer tends to be on those days when winds are an average of 5-10mph or right after a period of really high winds (in an area where the deer don’t usually get really high winds).

Rain

Hard rain associated with strong fronts & storms can shut deer movement down, so it’s not a very good time to hunt deer. But, a light rain or mist can be a great time to hunt deer. For more information, check out Lee’s article on Deer Hunting in the Rain. If you’re in a spot and stalk situation, rain and wind are what you want! Your noise will be muffled, and deer are more apt to be hunkered down, vulnerable to being snuck in on.

What Time of Day is the Best Time to Hunt Deer?

Are Mornings the Best Time to Hunt Deer?

I find morning hunts to be best during pre-rut and rut. In the early season and late season, deer tend to be bedded down before daylight. This isn’t always the case, but in general, this is what you’re going to see.

Evening Hunts for Deer

Evening hunts are typically the standard for whitetail hunters. Most people know that deer activity tends to pick up right before dark as deer leave their beds to head to evening food sources. Therefore, early season and late season tend to be great times for evening hunts because of that bed-to-feed pattern. During the rut, bucks are less concerned with food, and we find mornings and mid-day to be better. But bucks still look for does, and does are still going to be on that bed-to-feed evening pattern, so evening hunts pretty much make sense all season long.

Should I Sit All Day When Hunting Deer?

All day sits are something common to the rut because buck movement is more unpredictable. They are hunting does all hours of the day. Trophy hunting during the rut can be hard because the mature bucks usually have a doe locked down almost all the time. About the only chance a hunter has is if the big buck is done with his doe and starts looking for another one. You just don’t know when that’s going to happen, so that’s why you should sit all day. Bucks without does know all the doe bedding areas so that’s where you want to be, and it can happen any time of day. Late morning to early afternoon can be really effective.

During the rest of the year, all day sits don’t tend to make as much sense, unless you’re switching spots throughout the day. Even then, when the deer are bedded most of the day, you run the risk of simply stinking up and pressuring your property by being out there too long, so I find it better to just hunt the most effective times of the day, either morning or evening.

Which Moon Phase Should I Hunt?

Being aware of the phases of the moon makes it possible to predict the activity of deer in the area, according to MoonConnection.com. The more active deer are, the greater the chance of finding them. In addition to affecting the activity levels of deer, moon phases also have an effect on deer mating patterns. For this reason, hunters are increasingly using moon phase charts to track the different reproductive cycle phases of female deer. Because female deer go into heat during the three or four days around the autumnal equinox’s second full moon, hunters who track the moon’s phases know where to find bucks at a certain time.

Deer charts forecast deer activity according to the moon phases, providing the best days and times to hunt. These charts also predict the major feeding times for deer, which most often occur when the moon is either 25 or 75 percent illuminated.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors at play in determining the best time to hunt deer. Study this and I think your odds of success will only improve. Good luck out there!

 

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